Ottawa dramatist David Whiteman has created a trio of beautifully-drawn characters in his new play, The Lights Of Shangri-La. Thematically, this piece may have little new to say: its main narrative thrust stems from the fact that its two principals are gearing up to make painful revelations about themselves to others, and have trouble doing so — and really, that’s a pretty ho-hum device these days. Nevertheless, when it comes to character and dialogue, the play shows real strengths, and these are well-served in director Sarah Hearn’s discerning production.
The evening is highlighted by a terrific performance from Shaun Toohey, as Crockett Sumner, a guy who may have given up his acting career but who still feels compelled to make every moment of his waking life a performance. Crockett is gay, somewhat estranged from his male lover, a policeman named Ilya, and still in denial when it comes to admitting that he’s now HIV positive. Toohey’s Crockett is sharp-tongued, self-admiring and often insufferable, but the performance also offers glimpses of a tormented narcissist unable to drop the mask.
It’s his sister, Pen, a frail cancer survivor, who is best able to penetrate that brittle, preening facade. She is nursing her own secret, confronting her own mortality, and Cathy Nobleman’s performance not only probes Pen’s emotional depths but conveys an essential goodness of heart. Furthermore she and Toohey work together beautifully, giving us a pair of siblings who know each other only too well: it’s a relationship in which frequent exasperation with each other is trumped by a genuinely caring love. We believe in them.
As Crockett’s lover, Lucus Kenny seems emotionally remote, but he’s also struggling with the one underwritten role in the play. However, Nisha Toomey is solid and believable in the well-written cameo role of Pen’s daughter.
Whenever possible, Sarah Hearn’s production brings us into contact with the play’s beating heart. But ambushes lurk in this script: there is little Hearn or her cast can do with the play’s tiresome fantasy sequences, which is why the ending — currently a major misfire — should be reconsidered.
The Lights Of Shangri-La by David Whiteman
A TotoToo Production
Academic Hall, University of Ottawa, Sept. 10-13
Director: Sarah Hearn
Crocket Sumner: Shaun Toohey
Pen Sumner: Cathy Nobleman
Ilya Petrov: Lucus Kenny
Maddy Sumner: Nisha Toomey
Stage Manager: Josh Kemp
Assistant Stage Manager: Lawrence Evenchick
Sets and Lighting: David Magladry
Sound and original score: Mike Heffernan
Costumes: Glynis Ellens
Make-Up and Hair: Corey J. Stone
Props: Monique Ecroyd
Voice cast: Mike Heffernan, Josh Kemp, Miriam Chartrand, Courtney Dinelle-Mayer and Harrison True